Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Unwelcome Traditions

My comments on Giant Size X-Men for the other blog eventually got so ivolved that I thought they might be worth putting up here as well (after very minor tweaking). 

It's entirely unoriginal and obvious to point out that with the benefit of hindsight, "Secomd Genesis" marks probably the most important turning point in the entire history of Uncanny X-Men.  That fact eclipses all others, I think, and people forget - or at least don't discuss - exactly which parts of the book proved the most transformative and, more importantly, whether their effects were actually desirable.

A lot has been made of the international flavour of the second generation of X-Men, which is hardly surprising. Of the seven new mutants to be recruited by Xavier, only one was born within the borders of the US, and as a resident of an Apache reservation, it's fairly clear John "Thunderbird" Proudstar would not consider himself to be an "American" as the term is generally understood (which is to say, he very much considers himself American, but sees Xavier and Cyclops as "white-eyed" interlopers).

In all this talk of race and nationality, though, the more important change is often overlooked. With the introduction of the new team, the book is no longer about five teenagers who follow their mentors orders to the letter, but about eight characters in their early twenties through to (seemingly) their late thirties at the very least, who all have their own motivations for joining the team.

In short, the book is now stuffed full of conflict, both over the tactics best suited to getting the job done, and the strategy that should be being employed in the first place. "Second Genesis" makes this very clear once the neophyte X-Men arrive on Krakoa by having Cyclops split the group into four pairs, each of which (barring Storm and Colossus) consists of one team-player, and one surly, objectionable turd.

After all, there's no logical reason for splitting the team up - having them advance on the centre of the island from four different directions seems ludicrously counter-productive (rescue missions rarely requiring the target be surrounded) - so it must have been done to allow us to understand what is happening. The age of bickering and insubordination has begun.

I've discussed this at length over at the other blog, of course, as part of my attempts to deconstruct the '90s X-books and work out exactly what went wrong during that decade (not that I think it was as bad as some do). Ironically, given that I blame him for so much of what made those years sometimes tiresome, Wolverine actually comes off the best of the three designated dickheads here, appearing to be (as he is) a man willing to give his all to complete the mission, just with little interest in other people's opinions about how to do it. In contrast, Thunderbird and (especially) Sunfire are little more than argumentative children, constantly reiterating their disinterest in being part of a situation they volunteered for mere hours before.

Indeed, this is part of the fundamental problem of the book. Let's consider the original series of Star Trek for a moment. I once saw Nichelle Nichols tell, with visible emotion, a story about the day Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. approached her, and told her that Star Trek was one of the few shows he allowed his children to watch because it, almost uniquely for US television during the '60s, neither excluded black characters, nor made an issue of their presence.

He was right. One of the great strengths of ST:TOS is how little interest it had in pointing to its black comms officer, or its Asian helmsman. There is perhaps some mileage to be had in an argument that says writing Sulu and Uhura as being indistinguishable from white characters (which, by and large, they most certainly did) brings its own set of problems, but in the context of the era and the surrounding culture, I think the show deserves a lot of respect (c.f. the hideous back-slapping atrocity of "Far Beyond the Stars" DS9 offered up thirty years later) .

The point here is that it isn't enough to put together a multiracial cast of characters. You also have to not spend all your time sticking flashing arrows above those characters with their origins written on in neon.

The amount of noble gas expended in the thirty seven pages of Giant Size X-Men could have been used to make Las Vegas visible from high orbit. Banshee can't go two sentences without a "Begorrah!" or a "Sure'n it looks like...", and I'm not sure how comfortable we should be with the idea that an African tribe would worship a mutant as a god (though that's not really something I know enough to comment on), but it's Sunfire and Thunderbird, with their constant refusal to simply do what they'd agreed to without endless petty sniping, who get the most raw deal. Sunfire, just as he was five years earlier, is portrayed as a stereotypical arrogant, gaijin-hating, honour-obsessed Japanese citizen, and his simultaneous loathing for Westerners and desire to prove himself worthy of the Bushido code apparently compel to him join up, quit, and then join up again, all entirely without reason (naturally, in the next issue, he quits).

Thunderbird, though, is in a league of his own. Every analogy he makes involves Custer or his last stand - because clearly Little Bighorn is the only thing an Apache would think about or reference - but the real problem only arrives when Xavier gets him to sign up by essentially calling him chicken. "What will this Apache hate more", asks the subtext, "the white man, or his own people's miserable shell of an existence?"

It's not that I can't imagine a Native American who would look at his people's situation and find it lacking, or even that he would blame them for it. It's just the idea that a Caucasian could use those feelings to manipulate the Native American to do exactly what they wanted that leaves an excessively sour taste in the mouth, especially when you realise that a white writer is using a white character to tell an Apache that he needs to prove that his people are still worthy of respect.

In fairness, both Wolverine and Nightcrawler escape any kind of cultural pigeonholing, and Colossus' dedication to the ideals of Communism is presented without comment. So it's not all bad. There are definitely issues that need to be resolved, though. And whilst Sunfire and Thunderbird themselves very quickly stop being an issue, the basic concept of using someone's nationality as shorthand for their characterisation is something that lasted an awful lot longer.

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